Son of a ...

Kelly KleimanOctober 10, 2003

It sounds like something from the pages of The Onion: “Son of Prominent Father Recommends Family Favoritism.” Unfortunately, Adam Bellow’s book In Praise of Nepotism isn’t nearly so amusing. Instead, the son of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow has taken a modestly interesting idea—that the persistence of nepotism suggests it has some enduring value—and turned it into dogma: Nepotism is the single most significant characteristic of social organization, and a good thing, too.

From pre-human history (the appearance of family protection systems in the animal kingdom) through the Greeks, the Rothschilds and the Bushes, Bellow marches us through circumstances in which the sons of successful men had opportunities given them for that reason.

When the sons (or other male heirs—the word “nepotism,” he notes, actually describes preferences granted nephews) succeed, the author credits the inherent value of relying on people who grew up in the business. When they fail, he blames not the practice but its poor execution. Success is the rule and failure the exception, he says, explaining that more families who became notable have succeeded than failed.

When men appear to make it on their own, Bellow shows they had fathers. If those fathers couldn’t help them, he recounts the help they received from other older powerful men. He describes this as “building an artificial clan”—at which point the concept of nepotism is so baggy as to lose all meaning.

It is of course literally true that there’s no such thing as a self-made man. (All were of woman born, for one thing, though the absence of women from the narrative might allow readers to forget that.) But that’s not a basis for arguing there’s no difference between people who have family-provided opportunities and those who don’t. Impressing your father or uncle is easier than impressing a stranger, which is the source of what Bellow derides as the “hypocritical distinction between nepotism and other kinds of favoritism.” Failing to answer the objections of people who understand nepotism as “opportunities given to people based on their parentage rather than their merits,” he simply redefines the practice as “opportunities given to people, most of whom, really, you know, probably are as good at it as anyone else would be, and if they’re not they’ll get fired, and anyway it’s natural for a father to love his son.”

From its sociobiological beginning through its neocon policy end, In Praise of Nepotism reinterprets the history of the world to show that preference for family is “hard-wired,” a neologism often favored by those who profit from existing arrangements.

Bellow tries to cleanse the practice of its reputational stain by prescribing rules for “the new nepotism” (same as the old nepotism): Don’t embarrass me, don’t embarrass yourself, pass it on. While he’s at it, he blithely acknowledges that beneficiaries of nepotism “may get initial opportunities that others don’t,” but claims this is harmless: “Other people must prove their merit before the fact, but nepotees must prove it after.” Well, no: Everybody has to prove himself after being given an opportunity—that’s why it’s called an opportunity and not an outcome.

Disarmingly, or so he hopes, Bellow concedes, “I did enjoy advantages unavailable to others at the entry level. … Doors were sometimes opened.” What he won’t admit is that those initial opportunities are the point, which is why the body charged with assuring fair treatment in the employment market is called the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Nowhere does Bellow answer the central objection to nepotism—that it gives unearned advantage to those who already have unearned advantage. Instead, he frames the practice as a “valuable corrective to the excesses of meritocracy,” a system whose recent ascent he blames on the striving and unheroic middle class.

The book’s subtitle, “A Natural History,” also is telling. Although he purports to disdain the fallacy that what is natural is right, Bellow devotes 500-plus pages to advancing just that argument. Things would have been different, he tells us, and worse, if Americans had discriminated against the great John Quincy Adams just because he was John Adams’ son. As to the legions of undeserving heirs—those who take what their fathers created and throw it away or prove unequal to it—Bellow faults not the debilitating effect of unearned privilege but insufficient nepotism. He speculates, “Perhaps if [FDR] had been more involved with his sons, a bit more nepotistic … they might have turned out better.”

This is symptomatic of the book’s larger problem, which is to define nepotism to mean “love of family,” as though anyone who criticizes the advancement of one person over another based on his family name is someone who hates families. This familiar neocon tactic recalls various “family values” arguments. To demonstrate his point, Bellow takes some breathtaking leaps of logic: “Adams’s humanizing nepotism is his saving grace,” he writes, “for there is finally nothing more inhuman—even monstrous—than a public man who has extinguished all family feeling.”

Conflation of nepotism (the distribution of goodies based on a closed private system) and family feeling (the system) almost succeeds in obscuring the central fact that nepotism is privilege reproducing itself.

Bellow’s book is an example of the “greed is good” school of politics, that plumes itself on its courage in asserting something that’s merely a vulgar claim of privilege, and tries to defeat any expression of qualms by saying, “Oh, don’t be so politically correct!” All too often, writers who brave political correctness to offer a trenchant point of view are merely arguing nakedly for the inexcusable. That’s the case here: there’s nothing particularly courageous about being unable to distinguish a commonplace vice from a virtue.

There are a few interesting ideas hidden in Bellow’s mind-numbing recitation of whose son fought at Thermopylae or went up San Juan Hill. Bellow notes that feminism has spurred a decline in the use of anti-nepotism rules in the professions and the academy, where frank “partner preferences” serve as bait to attract desirable married scholars.

Meanwhile, anti-nepotism clauses in the Civil Rights Act continue to be enforced on the factory floor and in the union hall. As a result, the rich can begin power-couple dynasties, while working-class families struggle one individual at a time. “Institutionalized nepotism represents in many cases the workingman’s only chance to do for his son what the rich man does for his as a matter of course.” Thus, the current system is actually a smoke screen for class warfare, Bellow argues. A fascinating idea, but one that Bellow is content to merely mention in passing.

The logic of the book also suggests that those outraged over the “unfair opportunities” provided by affirmative action can be ignored, because unfair opportunities are the American way. Bellow tiptoes perilously near support for affirmative action when he recommends defeating nepotism’s baleful consequences to minority opportunity by beginning “to see blacks as members of the family.” But he saves himself by failing to propose any means to foster or enforce such an expansion. That may be because government—many of whose powers he advocates transferring to the family—is the only such means.

Bellow’s most intriguing, and most troubling, idea is that “the real constituents of human society are not individuals but families.” Americans made quite the opposite decision at the nation’s founding: The Bill of Rights applies to its “constituent” individuals, not their families. If we believed in family rights, married women wouldn’t be able to vote if their husbands did. While acknowledging that “the deep-dyed American prejudice against nepotism obviously has its roots in the republican idealism of the founders,” the author dismisses those ideals as “impractical.”

There are, of course, socio-political systems of which the family is the essential constituent: We call them “aristocracies,” which acknowledge family rights by seating family representatives in bodies designed to make decisions for others. It’s true, as Bellow asserts, that respect for individual rights is the exception rather than the rule of human history, but it’s still surprising to encounter such casual disdain for the American experiment. By the time he finally acknowledges that nepotism may “offend against our democratic values,” it almost seems that undermining democracy is his goal, rather than an incidental drawback.

Bellow’s desire for the family to supplant the individual would be merely comic in another time and place: he’s unlikely to have examined carefully its true implications for our political system. But while individual rights are under assault by an administration committed to fostering the preservation of inherited fortunes, a book in praise of hereditary privilege is less funny than frightening. And when Bellow trumpets family succession in business as an example of New Nepotistic accomplishment, the entire book begins to seem like an elaborate brief for the repeal of the estate tax.

Some sons certainly do well, as Bellow argues: even certain daughters have done so. But the very idea that we should organize our society around the happenstance of family connection is—to borrow another buzz-word from the neocons—un-American.

Kel­ly Kleimans reportage and crit­i­cism appear reg­u­lar­ly in The Chica­go Read­er, the Chica­go Tri­bune, Chica­go Mag­a­zine and the Wall Street Jour­nal.
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